Category Archives: lirec

Germination X at Loading Bar, Falmouth

Where better for doing a game focus group test than in a games cafe? We had a fantastic turn out last night – we actually ran out of space! This was the third Lirec focus test using Germination X, but the first I’ve been physically involved in, and the biggest public event about this game I’ve done since last year’s draw your own plant spirit at Pixelache, way back at the start of the project.

Loading is based in the centre of Falmouth, and offers refreshment and the latest games to it’s dedicated clientele. We started off with around 45 minutes playing followed by a post-it note session covering the questions from SICS/mobile life, then a more freeform discussion on observations, many improvements and inevitable deep philosophy of game design as the evening wore on.

The participants included local people interested in permaculture and organic farming as well as those with a more games interest. Some interesting/unexpected things happened, and I haven’t even begun going through all the feedback, so more on that soon.

Edit: Following on from the focus group the game has it’s first ever review!

… one of the most drunken, slovenly and downright interesting game testing sessions in recorded history.

GX: Ancient oaks and tutorial info

Three hundred multicoloured oaks have been scattered around the Germination X world. These trees are all that remains of an ancient forest and require multiple players to find and sow plants around them in order to rejuvenate them into their former glory. This provides a simple additional community activity as well a first attempt at populating the wide expanses of the Germination X planet with landmarks – something that has been brought up in the focus group studies. There is also now an “oak score” to record the players who contribute bringing them back to life.

Also new today, a tutorial explaining how to do the basic picking and planting as well as some of the more advanced things (which are not so obvious and badly needing explanation) like sending seeds and fruit to other players and using butterflies to find out who planted things.

GX: Spirit personalities, asking players for help, twitter

Another Germination X server update happened yesterday, concentrating on the plant spirits.

We needed to log the emotional state of the spirits, so I thought twitter could be used for this, similar to the Naked on Pluto cleaner bot. In this case though, all three plant spirits have accounts, so they can have little conversations with each other – the wording is the same as the in game messages, and is chosen based on their current emotional state.

For the first time the plant spirit characters are programmed with different “personalities”, or settings for their FAtiMA roles, so we should see some different behaviours from them.

The last update broke the FAtiMA rules for diagnosis of ill plants and asking players for help, which is now fixed. The spirits now prioritise asking for help from players who have logged in recently, making it much more likely that currently active players see requests. The spirits are now also ‘summoned’ to ill plants throughout the entire world, meaning more activity generally – previously they were attracted to different locations by player activity only, and so would stay in the last area used (and could only “see” plants there) until new players came along.

GX: soil conditions, glowing plants and empathic spirits

Along with setting up interactive installations, the last week has been a fairly intense code sprint on Germination X, based on feedback from the second focus study by SICS/mobile life in Stockholm.

In order to get a more interesting world, and shake things up a little, soil conditions now vary quite dramatically. Some areas are friendlier to plants, and some very much harder to grow in than before. We’ve talked a lot in the design process about having different types of plants for different soil types or whole regions, this is a step in that direction.

The feedback from both the focus groups in Stockholm agreed that the little star sprites used to signify plants you’d planted were confusing as they looked like flowers. I’ve removed them and added a little glow around the plants instead.

The biggest change this time is probably with the plant spirits. The FAtiMA AI system has been upgraded and as well as a bunch of fixes on my end to improve responsiveness and message wording, I’ve focused on a whole range of emotions called “fortune of others”. The OCC-model (Ortony et al., 1988) defines them like this:

I’ve attached actions to each of these four emotions which cause the spirits to react with empathy to events in the world that don’t concern them directly, depending on how much they like each other, or if the events are good or bad for the plant spirit in question. This starts to more effectively exhibit interesting properties of the FAtiMA system.

Germination X: striving for simplicity

In late December the Mobile Life Centre in Stockholm ran the first focus test for Germination X, and last week I met up with them to get the feedback in detail. Even for a small study of 5 players, this was very detailed – but the broad conclusions were that the underlying ‘ecological model’ of permaculture is being communicated very effectively via the game – the players got the idea of this quickly through playing, without it being explicitly communicated in a didactic manner.

On the downside, the role of the spirits were not clear to players at all – confusion from the quantity of messages, players constantly logging out to see what was going on from the public message timeline, and both the characters emotional state and connections between them and the permaculture plant layers were completely lost in the noise. Added to this, with the short duration of the study (1.5 hours) the pick power restriction was a massive problem, leaving players with nothing to do for long periods of time.

With more focus studies planned I’ve updated the game to deal with some of these issues as best I can:

Pick power is now recharged much faster. To balance this out, and add to the challenge of foraging for seeds and fruit they now regrow much slower and are harder to find in the world.

The way spirit messages are dealt with is now completely overhauled. All messages they send are viewable by all players all the time. They are displayed as speech bubbles by the spirits, making it clearer that they are responsible for them. They are now filtered out of players timeline messages to avoid problems with spamming too many messages.

There are also a bunch of updates to improve responsiveness of the world and make reactions to player’s activity faster to experience. Plant no longer gain health from nearby plants which are ill, which means reactions to new plants happen faster. The season length is shorter again (10 minutes for a full year cycle). Some optimisation of the mongodb code dealing with message dispatching means I’ve been able to double the refresh rate of the game (number of world tiles updated per second) while also reducing overall server CPU usage.

MapReducing plants and players

I haven’t been doing much work on Germination X lately, but we are now up to 101 players, and 766 plants alive at time of writing. Of the 101 players 60 of them are on the first “level” of planting ground cover plants, 24 are at level 2 planting shrubs and 4 have made it to tree planting. 13 have completed the tree planting level and are free to plant what they like.

The mongodb database the game now uses allows you to connect via a console and pull out some statistics using bits of JavaScript with a feature called mapReduce – an idea based on the lisp functions map and reduce (or fold in Scheme) and made popular by Google with it’s search algorithm.

Each tile in the world contains a list of entities (each plants is an entity), so we can “map” over the tiles, creating a new list of plant counts. Then we “reduce” over the counts with another function to find the total. This approach allows the database to do the operations in parallel, and control the amount of memory required – which would be necessary if we had a fair few more players :)

    // map fn 
    function() { 
    // reduce fn
    function(key, values) { 
        var result={count:0}; 
        values.forEach(function(v) { 
        return result;
    // tell it to spit out the result in the console
    {out: {inline:1}}

This more complex example tells us the distribution of players by how far they have got:

    // map fn
    function() { 
        if (this.layer==0) emit("ground cover",{count:1}); 
        if (this.layer==1) emit("shrub",{count:1}); 
        if (this.layer==2) emit("tree",{count:1}); 
        if (this.layer==3) emit("complete",{count:1}); 
    // reduce fn
    function(key, values) { 
        var result={count:0}; 
        values.forEach(function(v) { 
        return result;}, 
    {out: {inline:1}}

Serious/educational games interview with Kara Frame

An interview with Kara Frame, who is studying Educational Technology at San Francisco State University.

Please tell us who you are, your role in designing games and why you became interested in “serious games”?

My background is in computer graphics programming for the games and film industries, but for the last 3 years I’ve been working for FoAM, an interdisciplinary research group who encourage me to work in a more generalist manner – working with people from different backgrounds and learning skills in wildly different areas.

I’ve also been heavily involved with software art and artistic projects that use games in different ways for quite a long time. For me, “art games” and “serious games” are both taking advantage of the way games allow players to take on different perspectives as they play – this makes them very powerful in terms of exploring ideas.

How does your approach to gaming make it unique from other similar games out there?

Germination X is designed to take its raw materials from the mass of online farming games, but builds around a world inspired by alternative agricultural methods (permaculture) to see how this changes the game experience.

We are also making use of a research AI system called FAtiMA, developed by the Lirec project which supports Germination X. FAtiMA models social relationships and emotions – we are exploring how using this kind of model effects player’s understanding of their relationships (with the AI characters, plants and each other) in a social game. Permaculture is mainly concerned with the relationships between plants, so it’s exciting to bring this all together.

What do you hope participants will come away learning or experiencing from your game?

I mainly want to inspire curiosity, when a game such as this represents a certain issue, I’d like players to come to their own conclusions – to explore it with them as equals rather than having some hidden “correct answer”. So the main thing is curiosity, which requires a certain depth, some mysteriousness. The best thing is when players tell me what is going on, because this means the game has allowed them to think creatively and openly.

What have been the challenges, obstacles at creating this game of your vision?

The thing I worry most about is consistency – that the world and the themes represented make sense, nothing breaks the player’s suspended disbelief. This is always the big issue, and in this game this has caused the most discussion and debate with people I’ve worked with.

What kinds of interactive assessment methods are you taking to making the goal of your games are likely to be reached?

With the help of the Mobile Life Centre (part of the Swedish Institute of Computer Science) we are setting up a series of focus group testing sessions which will give us feedback on the nature of the relationships in the game. Group discussions while playing, and responses to more leading questions at the end will be recorded.

Also, the game has been online and public since it’s first running version, and player’s actions are logged in a minimal way which allows me to immediately see the results of changes I make. This has been quite a huge discovery for me – the form of immediate feedback this makes possible. This open testing, in conjunction with it’s open source development, has meant I’ve been able to get quite a bit of feedback from brave early adopter players.

We have yet to enable this in Germination X, but in a previous game (Naked on Pluto) we have AI agents who ask players questions relating to the theme of the game (in that case privacy in social networks) which then get automatically posted to a blog external to the game. I think building in feedback this way, whether it’s about the issues or the game itself, is really important.

What do you see as the advantages/disadvantages of games in educational use?

I think games have vast educational potential – simply because from my perspective, most of what I consider learning happens via playing. I can only understand something properly if I can pick it up, shake it, take it to pieces and rebuild it in some way (whether that’s cars, Finnish language or linear algebra).

The problem is that this approach to learning doesn’t seem to fit very well with existing educational ideas. There seems a sense of the potential, but perhaps a lack of understanding of how to achieve this. I guess one problem is that people who do “get it” are perhaps put off by education, and so are not in the right place.

Where do you see the potential of digital games as a force for individual/community change in the future?

There is something about entering a game world that allows you to take on the perspectives of people you might not normally agree with, and understand the conclusions they reach. This was most clearly demonstrated by a workshop by Selena Savic at the Make Art chmod +x festival on a game prototype that examined the differences between the business strategies of super markets and local stall markets. The workshop was carried out on a bunch of mainly left leaning open source artists, all whom when playing the supermarket side took on all the monopolistic strategies they could with wild abandon! So I hope the potential of these kind of approaches might add to a shift in politics and decision making (on personal or community levels) away from restricted partisan modes of thought.

What advice would you give a novice game builder who is considering using or designing games to use in participatory agents of change?

If computers and programming are not a natural medium for you then start with drawing, models, bits of lego, make a board game, act it out with your body. It should be possible to get basically all the decisions made this way before touching a computer. Document everything, blog about it, get as much outside input as possible.

I see a lot of educational or serious games fail because they attempt to take an existing game and “bolt it on” to an issue – this rarely works. You have to take the game design seriously, and struggle with it to fit the theme or issue you are interested in. Everything in the game has to represent the theme consistently somehow.

GX: Intelligent butterflies etc

Over the last couple of weeks Germination X has managed to attract 70 players picking and planting in a permaculture world, with plants now covering 92 5×5 tiles – watch out Zynga :) This week has seen some more additions, firstly giving gifts to spirits has a large effect on their emotions positive and negative, and while it needs a bit more work – the wording of messages is modified according to the spirit’s emotional state at the time they send them.

The other big change is a new activity for when you are out of picking power which can give you more information about the other player’s plants – the butterflies can be drag-dropped over plants to find out who planted them.

Having this kind of information available makes some open ended meta games possible, such as a group of players getting together to take over part of the world. The role of the spiders remains mysterious, but I’m trying to figure it out…

Gameplay balancing and emotional turmoil

Balancing is where you tweak games to get the right level of difficulty – doing this on a single player game is hard enough, but on a live game with active players its quite tricky. Germination X is currently too easy, which results in plants happily growing packed closely together (blocking subsequent players from planting) so I made some slight changes, which had the effect of causing an environmental collapse which lasted several hours, completely sending the plant spirits into depths of simulated emotional turmoil.

I’ve also noticed that players are not tending to send each other gifts, which is probably for many reasons – the most obvious being that they don’t know it’s possible. Part of a fix for this is to add some general help when players start – this seems a common practice with social games.